Suraj is a big fan of crime and mystery thrillers. Movies in the genre of crime and suspense inspired him to take up writing on similar subjects. He started by writing movie reviews. He lives in Bangalore and is a software engineer by profession. His hobbies include reading and playing tennis. Elephants in the Room is his debut work. Read the review here.
NAW- Tell us about your book, Elephants in the Room. How did you get the idea for it?
It was in 2011 during a lonely trip from Bangalore to Chennai that this idea suddenly popped up in my mind. I was travelling to my grandmother’s house for the festival of Pongal, a trip that we make every year without fail where all relatives come together to celebrate the three-day festival.
I took the bus to Chennai on a working day and the vehicle was only half full. The seats around me were vacant and the TV inside the bus wasn’t working. It was a largely silent ride where I also had no music to listen to on my phone. The idea suddenly popped into my head and I loved it. I spent the whole six hours of the trip thinking about it. From there on, I worked on that idea for the next six years.
I have been interested in self-help books and the psychology of crime. Crime movies and mysteries always appealed to me. The unexpected twists and turns in the books I read and the movies I watched fascinated me. Hence, I was sure that I would write crime-related subjects. Accordingly, I made an outline for the book on that journey.
The city of Chennai has 400 years of history behind it. It provides ample opportunity to trigger one’s imagination and for the creation of characters across the human spectrum of behaviour. This prompted me to choose Chennai even though I live in Bangalore.
NAW- For a debut book, you’ve gone for a book with a not so common formula. Were you apprehensive it wouldn’t come out so well since thrillers don’t really do well in the Indian market?
I didn’t think of it until I finished the first draft of the book. However, I became apprehensive about how readers would receive the book as I went through the later stages of editing. But the apprehension fuelled me to conduct more research on techniques to make the book better and turn the reading experience into a memorable and immersive one for the reader. This was also aided by constructive and helpful criticism from my friends who provided honest feedback as readers.
In addition to that, I took a respite from the positive feedback that I received for the idea of the story when I discussed it with my trusted set of friends who were my beta readers. It enabled me to have faith in the story that I wished to tell and pursue the idea to the end.
Above all, I believed that readers would accept a good story. In hindsight, I feel thankful for whatever happened.
NAW- Much of the action in the book takes place inside a confined space i.e. the bank. How difficult was it writing the plot where the characters are confined into such close spaces?
It required a lot of time to think of the different perspectives that could be used to provide variety in perceiving the setting of the bank. This is where the myriad characters present in the book helped. Each character has different stakes involved in the situation, enabling to increase the tension, suspense, and thrill. My approach was to try to visualize myself in the situation and imagine passing time in the given situation in a confined space. I documented the natural course of events that had to happen in the situation. I realised in the process that even the simplest of things would be filled with tension and humour at the same time in the given situation. And then, I had to present the same through the respective character’s eyes depending upon the chapter.
NAW- Tell us about the research you did for the book. How did you go about it?
The first area of research involved scouting the locations for the world that is presented in the book – the city of Chennai. For this, I traveled to all the places of Chennai mentioned in the book myself. I planned these visits, spending time at each of the sites, making observations about the people who frequent the place and the activities they engage in. This allowed me to present an authentic image of all the places. It also allowed me to modify the description of certain sites to suit the scene in the story as I have called out in the book.
The second area of research was around the tradition of gaana songs. Gaana songs stand out for their simple yet meaningful lyrics composed in Chennai Bashai (local dialect of Tamil) which is unique and different in its own way. For this, I interacted with the locals of Chennai and friends to collect the vocabulary of Chennai Bashai which in turn enabled me to compose the lyrics myself. The subsequent translation of the songs into English also helped me delve into poetry after a long time and appreciate it’s beauty.
The third area of research involved collecting information about the functioning of the police department and government intelligence agencies. I interacted with police officials to collect authentic information on the protocols followed by the department, the hierarchy in which they work, vehicles and weapons used, negotiation tactics, criminal profiling, cooperation with other agencies and assault operations. Most importantly, the research provided insights into nuances of their lives which allowed me to make their portrayal in the story all the more authentic.
The fourth area of research involved the study of human nature, the evolution and development of crime and the character traits of intelligence and adaptability. Fear is the recurring emotion in the book and I studied its anatomy to understand its origin and trace its development to peak state. The research helped me in portraying the emotions the best way possible and in turn provide an immersive and cinematic experience for the reader within the realms of a book.
The fifth area of research involved the study of leadership, teamwork, relationship building and business strategy. This enabled me to develop these traits into the characters and portray their transformation in the most authentic and natural way possible. The undercurrent in the book reflects these themes in subtle ways for readers to make their inferences and form their own opinions.
The sixth area of research which was generic to writing and the most important was around the development of the story and the book itself. My research involved going through various books on writing techniques and character development. I studied the tips and suggestions provided by various writers and filmmakers on the craft of storytelling, scene construction, and character design. I have tried to implement them to the best of my ability.
NAW- How was your publishing journey? Share some insights about The Write Place and its initiative as its new for us.
My publishing journey has been a learning experience. As part of the process, I understood the limitations that publishers face as they work hard to keep the practice of reading books alive. I also understood the challenges faced by any author and more so by a debutant author.
My first experience of pitching the idea to a publisher came in 2014 when I participated in the Litmart event of the Bangalore Literature Festival. Litmart is a platform for debutant authors to submit the story idea for review and then present the same to a jury of members from reputed publishing houses for selection. This platform allows new writers like me to experience pitching the idea to publishers and know where they stand amongst all the new writers who also submit their work for selection. It is also beneficial to the publishing houses as it gives them the opportunity to scout for new voices from the writing community and nurture the aspiring writers.
My story idea was selected among the top 15 entries from hundreds of applications. I went on to pitch my idea to a jury of six members from different publishing houses. In the end, I received interest in the manuscript from three publishers.
This encouraged me to conduct more research as I already stated earlier. I was not satisfied with the effort. So, I focused more on refining the book, improving the reading experience, establishing great characters that readers would love and build a great story. I searched for writers who could help me develop my writing skills. In the process, I was fortunate to make friends with Aditya Magal, published author from Penguin Random House, who also was kind enough to be my mentor and guide me in the publishing process.
With time as the book acquired better shape and refinements like aging wine, I found The Write Place and submitted my manuscript. They expressed interest and the book went on floors in late 2016.
The Write Place, launched in 2014, is a publishing initiative by Crossword Bookstores. It was started with the aim to enable aspiring authors and ultimately connect them to the right audience. Crossword has been a part of the book retail industry for the last twenty-three years and already has a chain of bookstores across the country.
NAW- What do you do when you are not writing? What is your day job?
My day job is that of a software engineer working out of Bangalore. I spend my free time reading and watching movies across languages. I log my reviews for books and movies on websites like Goodreads and Letterboxd. I am a huge fan of tennis and follow the sport closely. I also play at a local academy for recreational purpose.
NAW- What are you reading currently?
I am currently reading two books in parallel – a courtroom/suspense thriller called Defending Jacob by William Landay and a psychology book Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced as ‘Mi-hi Chick-sent-me-hi’). Before this, I just finished The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee.